Off-Centre History & Culture

Dimapur: Memories of a brick city

Mysterious Kachari ruins in Dimapur.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

On the banks of the Dhansiri River sprawls a city that’s the cosmopolitan and commercial heart of Nagaland today. The ruins that dot its landscape, among them a set of mysterious mushroom-domed pillars, are testament to an equally distinguished past. Dimapur was once the seat of the Dimasa kingdom, also called Cachar, which was established by the Dimasa Kachari people and ruled parts of the Brahmaputra valley from at least the 13th century — the time of the earliest available written records, although Dimasa rule in Dimapur may go back as far as the 10th century, according to historian Uttam Bathari — to the 19th, when it was annexed to British India.

There are two accounts of the way in which Dimapur got its name. Most scholars are of the opinion that it is derived from the Dimasa Kachari words di (water) and ma (large) — referring to the Dhansiri — and Sanskrit pura (city). Others are of the view that Dimapur is a corruption of ‘Hidimbapur’, meaning the city of Hidimbi, a character in the Mahabharata who married the Pandava prince Bhima and gave birth to Ghatotkacha, believed to be the progenitor of the Kacharis. Meanwhile, other accounts often refer to the ‘brick city’. For instance, in the Ahom chronicles, Dimapur is referred to as the Che-din-chi-pen (town-earth-burn-make) meaning ‘brick town’.

The Kacharis have been described as “the original autochthones of Assam”. S.K. Bhuyan in Kachari Buranji writes that they built political and administrative units, vestiges of which have lingered till this day. Captain Thomas Fisher, the first superintendent of Cachar after the kingdom’s annexation by the British in 1832, said the Kacharis had gradually built an empire over Assam, Sylhet, Mymensing, and the valleys to the east of the Brahmaputra, their original seat being at Kamrup; and that their rule ultimately embraced everything from Kamrup down to the sea.

A brick archway in the city.

A brick archway in the city.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

Far and wide

Evidently, the Kacharis were widely distributed and exercised their sovereignty throughout Assam in different ages, with different names and in different places. According to Bhuyan, the kingdom of Cachar ruled by Tamradhwaj Narayan, a contemporary of the Ahom king Swargadeo Rudra Singh in the early 18th century, and by Govinda Chandra at the time of the British occupation, was only one of numerous states founded by the Kachari people.

Dimapur, which was the capital of the kingdom from the 13th century to the 16th, was originally enclosed on three sides by a brick wall four feet wide, 16 feet high and two miles long, surrounded by an outer ditch 16 feet in width and 12 feet in depth, except on the southern side where the Dhansiri formed a natural moat. On the eastern side, there was a fine solid gateway with brick masonry of pointed double arches. The gate was secured by heavy double doors, the hinges of which were seated in holes pierced in solid stone blocks. There were half-quadrant-shaped turrets at both ends of the battlements, and niches like ornamental windows between these turrets and the archway. High up, on either side of the arch, is a carving of sunflowers that were originally faced with brass so as to present a dazzling spectacle when seen sparkling in the sun from afar.

H.H. Godwin-Austen’s plan of Dimapur.

H.H. Godwin-Austen’s plan of Dimapur.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Watering the fields

In Deodhai Ahom Buranji, there are references to the Kacharis constructing tanks and harnessing water from rivers by cutting canals. They made small dams or water channels to divert streams and irrigate their fields. There were large numbers of excavated tanks, big and small, near settlements and cultivated sites in the Dhansiri valley. These were used for both agricultural and domestic purposes, the river providing a perennial source of water. The presence of so many tanks — 52 in all — in the vicinity of Dimapur indicates that it supported a large population. The 19th-century surveyor and mountaineer H.H. Godwin-Austen’s plan of the city revealed three tanks — one within the walled enclosure, and two enormous ones outside. The former seems to have been for drinking and the latter for irrigation. One of the major activities of the king was the construction of irrigation works, which also indicates the existence of an organised workforce under the state that could be deployed for agricultural purposes.

The development of crafts like masonry, quarrying, metal smithing and brick-making, and the architectural edifice, all point to the presence of craft specialists. B.C. Allen in his gazetteer has suggested that thin flat native bricks were used to build the monuments, indicating that the Dimasa kings had brickmaking centres of some sort. Stone blocks used in the monuments were procured from the Naga Hills and transported to the capital complex in elephant carts, which had wooden wheels attached to shafts with iron axles. The use of brass and iron shows that metalwork was fairly developed.

The 15th century was characterised as the golden age of Dimasa rule by T. Bloch and E. Gait. It’s one of many epochs and civilisations that have been neglected and forgotten, thanks to colonial administrators who branded the people of the north-east as ‘primitives’, ‘savages’ and ‘godless’. This attitude was passed down to Indian scholars, too, and the region was viewed as an isolated frontier with no connection to the cultural continuum of India for a very long time. I believe it’s high time we became the voice for many such unrecognised places from the past, and began to accord the civilisations of the north-east their place in the history of India.

The writer is assistant professor, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2021 3:55:00 PM |

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